DEAR JERRY: I recently learned that England's Petula Clark, one of my favorite singers, was not the overnight success we 1960s teenagers once thought her to be.
Hardly any Americans knew of her before “Downtown,” but now I find she made several records before finally breaking through during the British Invasion. Tell me a bit about those earlier years.
I know Clark also appeared on TV and in films. Did she ever pursue acting?
Hazel Cobb, Lakeland, Fla.
DEAR HAZEL: Petula an overnight success? Yes … and no.
It depends on whether you're east or west of the Atlantic.
Surrey-born Petula began her professional career in 1944, at just the age of 11.
Pet appeared in two films that year, “Strawberry Roan” and “Medal for the General,” and the pre-teen's film gig went into high gear.
Between then and now, there isn't a year when Clark did not appear in films, on television, or in an Original Cast show.
Her staggering number of worldwide stage and screen appearances is around 3,000!
Two of her best-known roles are in “Finian's Rainbow” (1968) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969). For her portrayal of Sharon McLonergan in “Finian's Rainbow,” the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated Pet for a Golden Globe Award in the Best Actress category.
Somehow along the way, Petula found time to make a recording or two.
Clark's first single, issued in early 1950, is the British cover version of Teresa Brewer's No. 1 hit, “Music, Music, Music.”
In the summer of '54, a cover of the Gaylords' “The Little Shoemaker” put Pet in the UK Top 10 for the first time.
Though the hits continued in her homeland through the '50s, her name remained unknown to music lovers stateside.
Americans know “Sailor (Your Home Is the Sea),” the Top 5 hit in late 1960 for Lolita nearly all of which is sung in German. Yet, in a surprising linguistic twist, most here have never heard the song in English. Those in Europe did, as it became Petula's first No. 1 hit there in early '61.
After “Sailor,” Clark continued with one smash hit after another across Europe as well as the Pacific Rim. Those recordings came out in English, French, Italian, and German, with Petula mastering each language like a native of the land.
Don't think all this success went unnoticed by the U.S. record companies. It's just that before “Downtown” no one could make it click.
Beginning in January 1953, with “Tell Me Truly” (Coral 60971), Petula's imported tracks appeared regularly in the USA. Along with Decca/Coral (1953-'54), other domestic labels releasing her songs include King (1954); MGM (1955); Imperial (1959); Warwick (1961); London (1961-'62); and Laurie (1962-'63).
While not a nationwide best-seller, “The Road” (Laurie 3143) did become a regional hit and did, in those markets, pave the way for “Downtown,” in 1964.
Being a relatively unknown schoolgirl at 10, then a film star at 11 qualifies as an overnight success.
Yet, enduring nearly 12 years of record flops in the U.S. before “Downtown” makes for anything but an overnight success.
IZ ZAT SO? One of Petula Clark's massive hits in Europe bears the perplexing one-word title “Chariot.”
No, this track has nothing to do with the type of chariots seen in “Ben-Hur.”
Released in 1962 first in French then in Italian Clark's “chariot” is simply a metaphor for boarding a wagon made to carry two lovers through the cosmos.
Though not issued in the U.S. at the time, RCA Victor gave the tune to Margaret Annemarie Battavio, a 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl they were promoting as Little Peggy March.
With English lyrics and the same melody as Petula's “Chariot,” Peggy's “I Will Follow Him” (RCA Victor 47-8139) topped all the American charts in the spring of 1963.